Manuals, or the lack thereof…

When I first started playing video games and using computer applications, I remember having to read the instruction manuals to figure out what was happening on screen. I don’t know if this was because I was young and couldn’t figure this stuff out, or because some of the controls were obtuse and difficult. It was perhaps a combination of both, but I think the latter was more prevalent, especially when applications and games became more complex and powerful. I remember sitting down at a computer running DOS and loading up Wordperfect. The interface that appears is rather simplistic, and the developers apparently wanted to avoid the “clutter” of on-screen menus, so they used keyboard combinations. According to Wikipedia, Wordperfect used “almost every possible combination of function keys with Ctrl, Alt, and Shift modifiers.” I vaguely remember needing to use those stupid keyboard templates (little pieces of laminated paper that fit snugly around the keyboard keys, helping you remember what key or combo does what.)

Video Games used to have great manuals too. I distinctly remember several great manuals from the Atari 2600 era. For example, the manual for Pitfall II was a wonderful document done in the style of Pitfall Harry’s diary. The game itself had little in the way of exposition, so you had to read the manual to figure out that you were trying to rescue your niece Rhonda and her cat, Quickclaw, who became trapped in a catacomb while searching for the fabled Raj diamond. Another example for the Commodore 64 was Temple of Apshai. The game had awful graphics, but each room you entered had a number, and you had to consult your manual to get a description of the room.

By the time of the NES, the importance of manuals had waned from Apshai levels, but they were still somewhat necessary at times, and gaming companies still went to a lot of trouble to produce helpful documents. The one that stands out in my mind was the manual for Dragon Warrior III, which was huge (at least 50 pages) and also contained a nice fold-out chart of most of the monsters and wapons in the game (with really great artwork). PC games were also getting more complex, and as Roy noted recently, companies like Sierra put together really nice instruction manuals for complex games like the King’s Quest series.

In the early 1990s, my family got its first Windows PC, and several things changed. With the Word for Windows software, you didn’t need any of those silly keyboard templates. Everything you needed to do was in a menu somewhere, and you could just point and click instead of having to memorize strange keyboard combos. Naturally, computer purists love the keyboard, and with good reason. If you really want to be efficient, the keyboard is the way to go, which is why Linux users are so fond of the command line and simple looking but powerful applications like Emacs. But for your average user, the GUI was very important, and made things a lot easier to figure out. Word had a user manual, and it was several hundred pages long, but I don’t think I ever cracked it open, except maybe in curiosity (not because I needed to).

The trends of improving interfaces and less useful manuals proceeded throughout the next decade and today, well, I can’t think of the last time I had to consult a physical manual for anything. Steven Den Beste has been playing around with flash for a while, but he says he never looks at the manual. “Manuals are for wimps.” In his post, Roy wonders where all the manuals have gone. He speculates that manufacturing costs are a primary culprit, and I have no doubt that they are, but there are probably a couple of other reasons as well. For one, interfaces have become much more intuitive and easy to use. This is in part due to familiarity with computers and the emergence of consistent standards for things like dialog boxes (of course, when you eschew those standards, you get what Jacob Nielson describes as a catastrophic failure). If you can easily figure it out through the interface, what use are the manuals? With respect to gaming, the in-game tutorials have largely taken the place of instruction manuals. Another thing that has perhaps affected official instruction manuals are the unofficial walkthroughs and game guides. Visit a local bookstore and you’ll find entire bookcases devoted to vide game guides and walkthrough. As nice as the manual for Pitfall II was, you really didn’t need much more than 10 pages to explain how to play that game, but several hundred pages barely does justice to some of the more complex video games in today’s market. Perhaps the reason gaming companies don’t give you instruction manuals with the game is not just that printing the manual is costly, but that they can sell you a more detailed and useful one.

Steven Johnson’s book Everything Bad is Good for You has a chapter on Video Games that is very illuminating (in fact, the whole book is highly recommended – even if you don’t totally agree with his premise, he still makes a compelling argument). He talks about the official guides and why they’re so popular:

The dirty little secret of gaming is how much time you spend not having fun. You may be frustrated; you may be confused or disoriented; you may be stuck. When you put the game down and move back into the real world, you may find yourself mentally working through the problem you’ve been wrestling with, as though you were worrying a loose tooth. If this is mindless escapism, it’s a strangely masochistic version.

He gives an example of a man who spends six months working as a smith (mindless work) in Ultima online so that he can attain a certain ability, and he also talks about how people spend tons of money on guides for getting past various roadblocks. Why would someone do this? Johnson spends a fair amount of time going into the neurological underpinnings of this, most notably what he calls the “reward circuitry of the brain.” In games, rewards are everywhere. More life, more magic spells, new equipment, etc… And how do we get these rewards? Johnson thinks there are two main modes of intellectual labor that go into video gaming, and he calls them probing and telescoping.

Probing is essentially exploration of the game and its possibilities. Much of this is simply the unconscious exploration of the controls and the interface, figuring out how the game works and how you’re supposed to interact with it. However, probing also takes the more conscious form of figuring out the limitations of the game. For instance, in a racing game, it’s usually interesting to see if you can turn your car around backwards, pick up a lot of speed, then crash head-on into a car going the “correct” way. Or, in Rollercoaster Tycoon, you can creatively place balloon stands next to a roller coaster to see what happens (the result is hilarious). Probing the limits of game physics and finding ways to exploit them are half the fun (or challenge) of video games these days, which is perhaps another reason why manuals are becoming less frequent.

Telescoping has more to do with the games objectives. Once you’ve figured out how to play the game through probing, you seek to exploit your knowledge to achieve the game’s objectives, which are often nested in a hierarchical fashion. For instance, to save the princess, you must first enter the castle, but you need a key to get into the castle and the key is guarded by a dragon, etc… Indeed, the structure is sometimes even more complicated, and you essentially build this hierarchy of goals in your head as the game progresses. This is called telescoping.

So why is this important? Johnson has the answer (page 41 in my edition):

… far more than books or movies or music, games force you to make decisions. Novels may activate our imagination, and music may conjure up powerful emotions, but games force you to decide, to choose, to prioritize. All the intellectual benefits of gaming derive from this fundamental virtue, because learning how to think is ultimately about learning to make the right decisions: weighing evidence, analyzing situations, consulting your long term goals, and then deciding. No other pop culture form directly engages the brain’s decision-making apparatus in the same way. From the outside, the primary activity of a gamer looks like a fury of clicking and shooting, which is why much of the conventional wisdom about games focuses on hand-eye coordination. But if you peer inside the gamer’s mind, the primary activity turns out to be another creature altogether: making decisions, some of them snap judgements, some long-term strategies.

Probing and telescoping are essential to learning in any sense, and the way Johnson describes them in the book reminds me of a number of critical thinking methods. Probing, developing a hypothesis, reprobing, and then rethinking the hypothesis is essentially the same thing as the scientific method or the hermenutic circle. As such, it should be interesting to see if video games ever really catch on as learning tools. There have been a lot of attempts at this sort of thing, but they’re often stifled by the reputation of video games being a “colossal waste of time” (in recent years, the benefits of gaming are being acknowledged more and more, though not usually as dramatically as Johnson does in his book).

Another interesting use for video games might be evaluation. A while ago, Bill Simmons made an offhand reference to EA Sports’ Madden games in the context of hiring football coaches (this shows up at #29 on his list):

The Maurice Carthon fiasco raises the annual question, “When teams are hiring offensive and defensive coordinators, why wouldn’t they have them call plays in video games to get a feel for their play calling?” Seriously, what would be more valuable, hearing them B.S. about the philosophies for an hour, or seeing them call plays in a simulated game at the all-Madden level? Same goes for head coaches: How could you get a feel for a coach until you’ve played poker and blackjack with him?

When I think about how such a thing would actually go down, I’m not so sure, because the football world created by Madden, as complex and comprehensive as it is, still isn’t exactly the same as the real football world. However, I think the concept is still sound. Theoretically, you could see how a prospective coach would actually react to a new, and yet similar, football paradigm and how they’d find weaknesses and exploit them. The actual plays they call aren’t that important; what you’d be trying to figure out is whether or not the coach was making intelligent decisions or not.

So where are manuals headed? I suspect that they’ll become less and less prevalent as time goes on and interfaces become more and more intuitive (though there is still a long ways to go before I’d say that computer interfaces are truly intuitive, I think they’re much more intuitive now than they were ten years ago). We’ll see more interactive demos and in-game tutorials, and perhaps even games used as teaching tools. I could probably write a whole separate post about how this applies to Linux, which actually does require you to look at manuals sometimes (though at least they have a relatively consistent way of treating manuals; even when the documentation is bad, you can usually find it). Manuals and passive teaching devices will become less important. And to be honest, I don’t think we’ll miss them. They’re annoying.

2 thoughts on “Manuals, or the lack thereof…”

  1. Well, sure, some of them were annoying. But, come on, a lot of those old Infogame manuals were awesome. They were more than just instructions on how to play, they were a way to help immerse you into the ingame world (and, a primative form of copyprotection, too). =P

    I think you’re right, though. I hadn’t considered that aspect, but, in a way, a lot of the stuff that would have been included as a feelie back in the early days of gaming, is now part of an expensive package. They sell that stuff for real money now- things like those World of Warcraft maps and faction patches would have once been packed in the game as a bonus, but now they can get people to buy the game, and the feelie… why bother including it in the package? On the other hand, I shouldn’t complain too much. Games like God of War II include so many extra features that they fill a second disc…

    I actually just read Everything Bad is Good For You over the weekend, btw. You’re right, it’s a compelling read. I’m still processing it, and I might reread a few sections (I read most of it on a plane, which makes it harder to really take it in).

  2. These days, I don’t much like paper. I mean, it’s one thing to have a nice little collectible booklet with some backstory… but then, back stories can be accomplished effectively in cut scenes, right? I guess I don’t mind that stuff, but needing to look up instructions for how to do something is certainly annoying…

    Hey, I read a good portion of Everything on a plane too! I actually loved that book, and there were a lot of things that he delves into that have intrigued me for a long time. I haven’t reread it, but I’ve quoted him in at least 2 big blog entries since I’ve read it, so I’ve reread portions of the book…

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